Who were those Indians?
As one reads through the narrative histories of Iman
experience in Skamania one becomes aware of the fact that
these pioneers were living among many native Americans.
Though our family came to speak the local dialects, the
impression one has is of little clear information about the
historical and geographic circumstance in which they were
living. They survived raids and described very tall Indians
dressed in red skin. These were most likely, as Jim Windsor
(following Jim Attwell's thoughts in his books )
accounts it, Yakima Indians from outside of the region, and
not primarily the local Indians among which gorge pioneers
were living. Sad to say, it seems that for the most part,
the wrong Indians were hung at the end of the raids.
It may help to understand the geographic and historical
circumstances. Native Americans have lived on the Columbia
River for at least eleven thousand years. To them, the river
is not just a resource, it is a way of life. Native American
tribes throughout the Columbia River Basin, numbered at the
time before white migration between fifty to seventy
thousand. The gorge was the critically narrow passageway
through which rivers and people could migrate and correspond
from the plains to the coast; it was hallowed ground for not
only locals, but to all the many 'cross-roads' participants
who benefited so greatly from freely provided access. The
pond at Stevenson, one sees in accounts from family was
often full of natives visiting in large numbers. These were
likely seasonal visits during salmon runs, as part of
trading parties, and other ceremonial events.
Salmon was once the staple food for Native Americans
throughout this huge area. Salmon ran rivers and they were
captured, dried, and used even throughout the plains. It's
been estimated that Salmon provided forty percent of the
caloric intake of the plains tribes. Salmon was the staple
not only for the Coastal Indians but the plains hunters and
gatherers as well who had always visited to participate in
the annual harvest. Lewis and Clarke estimated that Native
Americans of the gorge prepared thirty thousand pounds of
dried salmon annually.
The Native Americans of the Columbia River were divided
into two broad cultural groups. Those west of the Cascade
Mountains along the lower river were of the Northwest
Coastal culture. They were fishing people and were oriented
to the region's salmon runs. There were, along the Columbia,
as noted by Lewis and Clark, many Chinookan bands with
shared cultural traits and yet somewhat different languages.
They were traders with local roots, 'broad-band" language
capability, and generations of dealing with 'outsiders'
including plains Indians, coastal Chinooks, fur traders of
French or British origin, and now the local pioneers..
numbering many thousands streaming through their hallowed
ground as the U.S. created land give-away incentives for
East of the Cascade Mountains and across the Bitterroots
lived the Plateau Indians. They had a culture similar to the
Plains tribes. In Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington,
western Montana, and adjacent Canada, mountains are covered
with evergreen forests and separated by grassy valleys. As
in the Great Basin, the hunting-gathering Shoshone pattern
of life persisted on the Plateau, but it was enriched by
annual runs of salmon up the Columbia, Snake, Fraser, and
tributary rivers, as well as by harvests of camas (western
United States plants with edible bulbs) and other nutritious
tubers and roots in the meadows. People lived in villages
made up of sunken round houses in winter and camped in mat
houses in summer. They dried quantities of salmon and camas
for winter eating, and on the lower Columbia River, at the
site of the present-day city of The Dalles, Oregon, the
Wishram and Wasco peoples kept a market town where travelers
from the Pacific Coast and the Plains could meet, trade, and
buy dried food.
Plateau peoples include the Nez Percé, Walla
Walla, Yakama, and Umatilla in the Sahaptian language
family, the Flathead, Spokane, and Okanagon in the Salishan
language family, and the Cayuse and Kootenai, or Kootenay in
Canada (with no linguistic relatives). There may also have
been plains-oriented Indians of a more local tradition as
well since it's noted that Tenino bands were at times in
conflict with the Wascos.
In the Columbia River Gorge, between the Cascades and the
Dalles, the two cultures came together to trade, gamble,
gossip and feast. The gorge was a crossroads between the
plains and the coast. It was a high traffic area with much
seasonal migration, and also local bands. Local bands spoke
separate dialects, but also a multicultural language. Here
is where the coastal Chinook salmon people met and shared
resources with the hunting and gathering plains Indians;
hunters and gatherers through vast areas of land in what's
now Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana. This was a
gathering place and major trading center with semi-shared
beliefs, reverence for the river and the abundant salmon.
There were bands of Indians in the gorge itself who were
more permanent residents in this crossroad of interaction.
Their language was related to Chinookan stock stretching
from the mouth of the Columbia River to around the region of
Cecilo Falls near the Dalles, Oregon. The multicultural
circumstance of these "intermediaries" have led many
ethnologists to decribe them as "Upper Chinook". These were
the only Chinook east of entry to the Cascades. The Wasco on
the Oregon side of the Columbia and the closely related
Wishram on the Washington side were the easternmost of the
Upper Chinook. They lived east to Celilo Falls and the Five
Mile Rapids area. More anthropological study has been done
on the Wishram than the Wasco. Below the Wasco, from Hood
River to The Cascades, was the Watlala or Hood River of
which little is written.
The Wasco-Wishram (Wascos were primarily on the Oregon
side, while the Wishrams lived along Washington river
shores) were intermediate between the Plateau and Northwest
Coast cultural areas. They maintained trading partnerships
with both Northwest Coast groups and those of the Plateau.
From the Klamath they obtained slaves that were raided from
northern California, from the east they received skins and
Plains traits, from the west seafood and shells, and they
traded with peoples from the north. As middlemen in a vast
trade network they were extremely important. Salmon was the
staple item of trade and their main food source. Perhaps the
most excellent spot on the Columbia River for these fish was
at Celilo Falls in the midst of the Wasco-Wishram.
The Wasco-Wishram kept slaves, who were the lowest
"caste" in a three or four caste system. One big notch above
the slaves were the commoners, and above them were the rich
and/or chiefly classes. This class system and the common
practice of keeping slaves were typical of the Northwest
Chieftainship was hereditary, being passed from father to
son if the son was worthy. The same system held for
subchiefs as well as for heads of wealthy families. Duties
of the chief were advisory and judicial. They often served
as intermediaries in village disputes, as there appears to
have been no council.
In Eastern Oregon, as for the whole Northwest, there was
really no such thing as a tribe in the terms of political
networks that stretched beyond the individual villages.
Except under extreme conditions a chief was only a leader of
a local group, and the culture, or aggregate of villages
speaking the same dialect, was held together by cultural and
social bonds rather than political bonds. The above was true
of the Wasco-Wishram who lived in villages each with its own
leaders. The winter village was near the river and permanent
or semi-permanent in nature, with the houses constructed of
cedar planks. In the summer they moved from camp to camp
fishing, hunting, berrying, and digging roots. Its said that
this temporary abandonment of winter villages has led many
anthropologists astray, since to the early explorers it
appeared that the Indians of the Columbia River had fled
from the area.
1855 was the year of local disturbances in Skamania. Much
else was happening outside of the gorge area during the
period. The introduction of European diseases, including
small pox, syphilis, pneumonia and dysentery, killed ninety
two percent of the total population. Periodic wars and
attacks decreased their numbers even more. The movement of
Native Americans to reservations was another harsh blow to
their culture. In 1855, Washington governor Isaac Stevens
secured the Native American surrender of sixty four million
acres of Pacific Northwest land for 1.2 million dollars. The
reservation land allotted to them was not much of a
substitution. Only one percent of the reservations created
by the government bordered directly on the Columbia. The
chief of the Yakimas had been killed by pioneers.
In our family histories, Margaret talks about her
learning the language, and her husband Felix's facility at
it. There are great tales of personal confrontations which
work out for the best, evidence of employment, and evidence
from Iman off-spring of living easily with their childhood
friends (post-crisis). Margaret talks about having lost the
language through disuse, since it, like the natives just
seemed to disappear.
Other references suggest that most or all Indians of the
region were moved to the Warm Springs Reservation in 1855.
To this day, there are speakers of the Wishram-Wasco Upper
Chook language who are affiliated with the Warm Spring
Tribal Council of Oregon. Wishrams and "Upper Chinooks" are
also among the native Americans living on the Quinault
Links for more learning:
 Attwell, Jim, Columbia River Gorge History, Volume 1, Tahlkie
Books, 1743, and Columbia River Gorge History Volume Two, 1975.